Our most useful London history books?

As A Complete History of London the one-hour romp through London’s history we’ve been hosting in the Roman Amphitheatre – draws to a close, we thought we’d bring you our very own shortcut to London history, with our top three most useful books.

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Guildhall Library staff have answered thousands of research enquiries over many years and it has become clear that there are some books that are used more frequently than any others in finding the answers. Below we will reveal what we believe to be the top three most useful books at Guildhall Library for researching London history. However, feel free to nominate your own candidates for the ‘most useful’ title in the comments section below! So, in no particular order, here they are:

1. A Dictionary of London: being notes topographical and historical relating to the streets and principal buildings in the City of London. Henry A. Harben (Herbert Jenkins, London 1918).

Harben’s book, actually published after his death, attempts to deal systematically with all the streets in the City of London from the historical and topographical point of view. The aim of the book is to record from original records and from maps and plans, the location of the streets and buildings of the City, to trace the origin of their names and to record their formation and growth. As such, the book is an almost infallible guide to which streets fall within the boundaries of the City and the earliest record of their name. It is clear that many later publications have drawn heavily upon this work, notably the London Encyclopedia, but none have bettered its accuracy and succinctness.

2. John Tallis’s London Street Views 1838 – 1840 (London Topographical Society, rev edition, 2002).

‘One of the wonders of the present age … a most singular and successful effort to depict a plan of London, by giving a representation of each street, with the front of every house.’ So wrote a contemporary reviewer of a serial publication issued between 1838 and 1840. It was the brainchild of John Tallis, an enterprising young London bookseller whose later career included establishing an American agency, creating a rival to the London Illustrated News (after trying to buy it), and recovering from bankruptcy.

Each part depicted the elevations of both sides of a major London street, engraved with a map of the surrounding area and a view of the street itself, or a shop or famous building there. Some issues dealt with the whole of the chosen street, but longer or more important thoroughfares might be covered by up to six parts. Each one cost just a 1½d; much of the cost of production was covered by the sale of the advertising space on the cover and spare pages.

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Tallis’s Street Views is unique in attempting to show every shop and building front on each chosen street. It provides a snapshot of the London landscape of the time, representing the Georgian City of low-rise individual houses and shops. These would soon afterwards be transformed by Victorian entrepreneurs, whose viaducts and bridges, new roads and railways gradually obliterated many of the buildings depicted here.

3. Public Sculpture of the City of London, Philip Ward-Jackson (Liverpool University Press, 2003).

The aim of this volume is to record in detail and in photographs all of the public sculpture in the City of London other than those found in art galleries, museums, cathedrals and churches. The book locates the position of sculptures, records the history of their commission, the sculptor, the size and, most usefully, the inscriptions. Not only are free-standing sculptures recorded by the book, but it also includes those to be found incorporated into the architecture of the buildings of the City.

This book is the seventh volume in Public Sculpture of Britain, a series intended eventually to cover the whole of the country and produced by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association. A companion London volume, The Public Sculpture of South London has been published and volumes covering West London and Westminster are in preparation.

These publications – and of course many, many more on London history – can all be found on the open shelves at Guildhall Library.

Let us know what you think our most useful books are!

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One thought on “Our most useful London history books?

  1. Totally agree with your choice for Tallis, which is a great source (see my blog). But I would like to add G. Dodd’s ‘Days at the Factory’ to the list of essential resources, because of the detail in which he describes the trades that were once just cottage industries, but were turned into much larger Victorian succes stories.

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